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HOME IMPROVEMENT: Personal Masterpiece

Turning a lonely old chair into a source of pride.



Odds are you are thinking, "Really? I have a fill-in-the-blank that I've wanted to redo for ages." That's according to my ongoing unscientific poll, at least, which consists of my mentioning the class to someone, who inevitably responds that he or she would love to take an upholstery class to turn around an unsightly piece of furniture lurking in the house or garage. It was just such an offhand mention that led me to the class and compelled me to bring my moldering chair into the light.

Sarah Gregory, who has been plying the trade and craft of upholstery for more than 30 years, teaches at the Montpelier Center for the Arts and Education. There I worked side by side with other first-timers as well as students who have been taking her classes for as long as 25 years and redone many pieces. Under her firm, good-humored instruction, I reduced my dusty, urine-colored chair to its spare wood frame and nine heavy springs and began its resurrection.

Gregory's philosophy is to teach students the "right" way to upholster rather than offering shortcuts commonly used in the trade today. For me, that meant eight-way hand-tying the springs that form the foundation of the seat. Fortunately, Gregory takes a hands-on approach, or I could never have crisscrossed and tugged twine through the stiff, heavy coils to make an arced seat half the original height of the springs. I was humbled to watch a stroke survivor much older than I tie down 6 feet of springs on an antique fainting couch.

Like so many well-made things, most of what makes a high-quality piece of upholstery is invisible in the finished piece. Layers of burlap and rubberized hair padding help keep weight distribution even. Over these, Gregory guides students to build the final curves and angles using overlapping plies of cotton felt padding compressed under tautly stretched decking fabric. Touch and a careful eye determine balance and design. I did more than my share of muttering as I untacked and retacked sections of decking to build up and rebalance the cotton (nursing the occasional sore thumb from an errant hammer stroke).

Finally, the moment of truth arrived when it was time to apply the fabric that had taken weeks of deliberation to choose. While I selected a fabric that required no pattern matching, other students did not. With Gregory's help, several first-timers precisely lined up plaids on frames and cushions; another used photographs to ensure that the large floral print matched on a pair of chairs inherited from her grandmother.

The greatest moments of trepidation came at the end of the process, when it was time to make the final cuts to fit the fabric snugly to the frame. It is here that a snip too far might send a student back to the fabric store. However, with Gregory's help and guidance, the cuts stayed true and my chair's transformation was complete. Now when visitors say, "That's a beautiful chair. Is it new?" I can modestly answer, "No. I did it myself."

If you take an upholstery class to avoid paying the exorbitant cost of getting something professionally recovered, you'll quickly come to appreciate the expense. Upholstery is a complex and physically challenging craft to learn. However, it has the advantage of resulting in a practical, impressive final product that you can enjoy for years. Many of Gregory's students return to re-cover pieces for family and friends, and some now practice the craft professionally.

About the Class

In my class students supplied their own furniture. The cost of tools and materials varied depending on the piece chosen to re-cover. The cost for an occasional chair without cushions was $165 for the class fee, $80 for fabric and $150 for materials, which included tools that need to be purchased only once.

Sarah Gregory holds a 12-week class after Labor Day at the Montpelier Center for the Arts and Education. For information call (804) 883-7378. A six-week class begins Sept. 12 at the Amelia Nottoway Vocational Technical Education Center in Jetersville. Call (434) 645-7854 for more information. Or contact Gregory at (804) 275-5806.

Do It Yourself

,compiled by Sara Tisdale

Richmond is full of do-it-yourself-friendly ways to spark your creativity, and we've rounded up a few places that are happy to help. You can always check your nearest Lowe's or Home Depot. Here are some other ideas. All classes run through late September. Check Web sites for specific dates.

It's All in the Hands

The name may have changed, but the Visual Arts Center of Richmond — formerly the Hand Workshop remains a forum for artists of all ages. Countless classes run throughout the year. Check out Introduction to Faux Finishes, Clay for the House and Garden or South African bead-weaving. Other classes invite you to produce a handmade book for guests to sign at your next party, to paint silk scarves for gifts or to try your hand at staining glass.

Visual Arts Center of Richmond

(804) 353-0094


Beef Up Your Inner Iron Chef

It has pretty much any cooking class imaginable, a faculty that includes such culinary celebrities as Charles Holly, Virginia's 2004 Iron Chef, and an impressive selection of gourmet cooking merchandise. Carytown's Compleat Gourmet will help get your kitchen skills in order.

The Compleat Gourmet

(804) 353-9606


Fire Up Some Personalized Dishware

Grab a plate, mug, frame, or any other piece that strikes your fancy, choose your paints, and let your inner Picasso whip out customized ceramics for you and yours. A Richmond establishment for several years, All Fired Up invites adults, children, and group parties to select from its wide array of pottery to decorate in its cozy studio space. Or take away supplies, paint at home, and return for a final firing. Says All Fired Up's Morgan Harris: "Some people do their entire dishware."

All Fired Up

(804) 355-3412


Cultivate Your Gardening Skills

Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden is growing, with weekly landscape design classes, diverse lectures and flower-arranging workshops. Try your hand at Nature Journaling or Introduction to Botanical Illustration; learn how to capture picture-perfect blooms in photography classes; or join flora followers for a pilgrimage to the gardens of Santa Fe, N.M., in September.

Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden

(804) 262-9887


Forget Trading Spaces

In addition to its belly-dancing and tai chi options, Henrico County Recreation and Parks offers interior-decorating classes for the less athletic (but more creative?) go-getter. Design classes are tailored to modern decorating conundrums (How to Decorate Rich, Decorate Your House to Sell, and Hallways and Foyers are just a few options).

Henrico County Recreation and Parks

Cathy Clifton, (804) 501-5812


Martha's Got Nothin'

On Mis En Place, Christine Wansleben's gourmet mecca. The focus is on the communal aspect of the table. Register for such theme-based group classes as Couples Who Cook and Kids in the Kitchen; savor monthly wine-tastings; or join Wansleben for market outings. You can also book the space for customized cooking parties or join the group for gourmet trips to Alaska, Italy or the Homestead.

Mise En Place

(804) 249-1332


Never Lift That Pinky Finger!

Meet with Katherine Barrett, a local etiquette expert, to brush up on your social skills (or realize how many you don't even know).

Sabot School of Etiquette

(804) 784-4998


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